Perhaps no dream is as universal, or as grand, as that of time travel. Being able to return to the glorious past, or speed away into the sci-fi future. Ever since humans began to have the notion of something happening now, this necessarily had to imply the future times later and the past times before. Human beings therefore relate to time, but not just as something outside us. Rather, we are constituted in terms of the temporal. Our capability of representation—in remembering the past and imagining the future—allows us to conceive of time: personally as the way in which existence is revealed to us, and inter-subjectively in terms of a numeric representation of the difference from one event to another.
Time, then, is something inherently human. It’s existence is abstract, comparable in nature to a convention—a measurement—such as the meter. The meter does not reside in the plank being measured; it is a human convention made up so that humans can convene about the qualities of the plank. Similarly, time is not something that resides in the universe. As physicist Carlo Rovelli wrote in his beautiful, little book The Order of Time:
The difference between past and future, between cause and effect, between memory and hope, between regret and intention… in the elementary laws that describe the mechanisms of the world, there is no such difference.
Time as a Way of Perceiving the World
Instead of being a physical reality, time is the way in which we experience both the universe and our selves. Time is not first and foremost a cultural convention—although culture helps sustain it—in many ways we as humans are time. The way in which we are constituted, and the way in which the world is constituted for us, is according to temporality. In his magnum opus Being and Time, Martin Heidegger writes how Dasein—the way of being particular for human beings—is always being-ahead-of-itself; we project ourselves to certain future possibilities that are open for us, and in so doing we continuously define ourselves. Time for Heidegger is not the tick-tock of the clock, but a way in which we as humans are existentially constituted; the meaning in our here-and-now is given by the way our future possibilities present themselves to us.
Time, then, is not something we can simply manipulate without also changing the very way in which we exist. In addressing the theme of our discussion then, that of Time Travel, we can ask: What would happen if any future, or past, possibility were presented to us? Let us discuss the possibilities, and potential implications, of a Virtual Reality Time Machine.
The Theoretical Possibility of a VR Time Machine
It is actually quite simple to imagine a kind of time machine that is at least theoretically possible to create. Just as we ourselves, to perceive time, need to be able to both remember (for the past) and imagine (for the future) our machine would have to be able to remember everything, that is store data (from the past), and be able to simulate any scenario (to generate the future). The latter requirement is where the technology of VR comes in.
Now, if humans generate the technology to store and compress all information about us and our environment, every second for every day—basically taking a backup of the world—then we could always go back to that point in Virtual Reality. If this machine had been designed way back, we would have the possibility to experience the past. Maybe you would want to grab a burger at a 1960s American diner, or get your beard cut in 1850s London? No problem.
Although this ultimate Time Machine, that requires the capture of all information in the whole world, sounds quite expensive to make and mildly put challenging in terms of privacy, we are nevertheless progressing towards something similar. Consider, for instance, how 3D scanning and photogrammetry is helping to store our cultural heritage; how cameras allow us to record precious moments in stereoscopic vision in 360-degrees; and volumetric video can even capture whole, dynamic environments in 3D and and 350/degrees. With the increase in the fidelity of the recordings, and also the VR displays through which we experience them, these technologies can be powerful tools in immersing ourselves in events of the past, as well as to simulate imagined versions of the future.
The Implications of the Virtual Reality Time Machine
Naturally, the capabilities of Virtual Reality to simulate time travel, that is, to provide any kind of experience comes with ethical problems. Many may have already seen the video of the mother being ‘reunited’ with her child, who was ‘brought to life’ in VR. It is terrifying to see her moving reaction, and the question immediately raises itself: is this something that we want? And what do we want? More specifically, given this freedom; who, where, and when, do you want to be?
We started this discussion by recognizing how we are constituted in terms of time. It is in the way in which we exist. It is, therefore, interesting to consider what would happen to our way of being, and our identity, if we blur the distinction between Past, Presence and Future. As we discussed deeply in The Existential Problem of VR, opening up for all future possibilities—which VR in its ultimate realization may do—is changing our existential relation to the world. The freedom that we have in choosing between A and B today is already existentially demanding. When VR will allow us not only to choose between A and B, but to define what A and B should even be from the start, we are given the total freedom, which again asks us for our absolute identity.
But maybe exactly this is our identity, only distilled into a higher form.
According to Heidegger, we are always in a state of becoming; we are always simultaneously present and moving away. Maybe to forever morph into different times, identities, and places is where humans are headed: immersed in their own stories and imagination, the capabilities that separates man from the animals: Dasein, the only being for whom Being is Being.
Did you like this content? Check out our related blog pieces:
In The Tao of Virtual Reality we discussed identity in relation to virtual worlds, starting from the Taoist story “The Dream of the Butterfly”
In The Existential Problem of Virtual Reality, we discussed how this question that VR poses us, of who we want to be, can be said to be existential and revelatory as to our core identity.
In A Virtual Masquerade, we discussed the peculiar nature of social VR, and how embodying avatars can provide new benefits and creative expression in communication.
In The Virtually Extended Mind, we discussed how we can extend our mind functions into the virtual, and so entertained the question of how we could design our new minds.
And finally, in A Psychedelic Virtual Reality, we discussed the possibility of visual languages which defied the subject/object dualism.